Skip to content. | Skip to navigation

There is a newer version of this site available at

Personal tools

You are here: Home / Pharmacology / Historical Perspectives / The Golden Age of Antibacterials

The Golden Age of Antibacterials

1-13A-DOMAGK-IMAGE.jpgDomagk thought that because dyes have affinity for bacterial cells, they may possibly alter their growth once taken inside.  He tested the synthetic newly patented red dye, Prontosil.  Luckily, he also tested this chemical in mice; if he relied on test tubes alone, no activity would have been observed and the discovery would have not been made. This is because the active component of the dye, the sulfonamide requires release during a necessary metabolic processes in vivo16.

The first to receive this was drug his own young daughter.  A needle was accidentally embedded in her wrist bone, eye first, and broke off when she fell from the stairs.  It was surgically removed but a secondary streptococci infection, which Domagk himself identified, resulted in a life-threatening fever.  Left with very little option, he asked permission from the attending doctor to give her Prontosil.  His daughter recovered almost immediately20.

For this monumental discovery, Domagk was awarded the 1939 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, but, being a German national, was forbidden by the Nazi regime to receive it.  He was instead arrested and jailed. He finally received the award in 1947, after the war.

In 1928, Fleming’s major medical breakthrough came about as he serendipitously discovered penicillin, later to be claimed as the miracle drug of the 20th century. However, the impact of this discovery was not realized until the 1940s, when its applicability as a therapeutic agent was made possible by Florey and Chain. Blamed for this delay was the lack of biochemical and microbiological expertise at that time, as well as the lack of interest and support from the scientific community brought about by previous experience with the failure of pyocyanase and the toxicity of Salvarsan.

In 1935, a breakthrough that ushered the era of antibacterials was made by the German biochemist Gerhard Domagk at the Bayer Laboratories of the I.G. Farben company in Germany19. He discovered and developed the first sulfonamide, a synthetic red dye more popularly known by its trade name of Prontosil, the first commercially available antibacterial.  Impressive clinical successes resulted in a sharp decline in mortaliy due to killer diseases such as meningitis, child bed fever and pneumonia.  Domagk’s discovery saved many lives, including prominent figures such as Winston Churchill6 and Franklin D. Roosevelt, Jr., son of then US President Roosevelt.

Inspired by the groundbreaking work of Domagk (with sulfa) and Fleming, Florey and Chain (with Penicllin), a number of subsequent antimicrobial discoveries quickly followed. To this day, newer antimicrobial compounds continue to be discovered and introduced, although the rate has slowed considerably. 


Antibiotic Timeline Part 01

Antibiotic Timeline Part 02



Document Actions

The Penicillin Story

One morning in September 1928, Sir Alexander Fleming who just got back from a holiday, returned to a lab full of contaminated and overgrown plates of staphylococci.  While decontaminating the old plates, he noticed some inhibition of bacterial growth around a mold contaminant and took interest because his previous works have been on finding effective antibacterial agents.  He later identified the mold as Penicillium spp., named the extract as penicillin, and published his findings in British Journal of Experimental Pathology in 1929.

1-12A-PENICILLIN-TRIVIA_FLE.jpgAfter realizing the inherent difficulty in cultivating the mold and purifying the active agent, he thought this discovery had little application.

However, about nine years later, pharmacologist Howard Florey and biochemist Ernst Boris Chain read his work and took interest in exploring it furher chemically.  They later successfully achieved purification and large-scale production of the first antibiotic which, after having saved millions of lives since its introduction in 1942, was later acclaimed as the miracle drug of the 20th century. 

For this notable achievement Fleming, Florey and Chain shared the Nobel Prize for Physiology and Medicine in 1945.